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Another Article About Toxic Workplaces That Won’t Get Noticed

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The phrase “toxic workplace” is having a moment. It is popping up on all of the workplace blogs and industry rags. And yes, it’s a serious problem. But no, this isn’t helping.

Tim Denning’s LinkedIn piece A Toxic Work Culture Is Forcing High-Performing People to Quit is one recent example of this trend. He provides a compact definition of the concept:

In a toxic culture, new ideas can’t thrive, people can’t be honest, bullying unfortunately occurs, leaders are given power that can go to their heads and fuel their egos, and an eerie feeling occurs at your company’s town hall/all hands when leaders ask for questions.

Denning continues to explain one unique problem, which is that a particular irony of toxicity is that the very people who do the most are the most likely to bail:

High performers know their strengths and are also smart enough to realize that if they can perform well in a toxic work culture, they can thrive in a Culture First company that looks after its employees.

Toxic Culture

© Flickr user John Bell.

He goes on to list a bunch of warning signs to management that your workplace might be toxic. And as a credit to the author, they are all solid. But guess what? That doesn’t matter. Because managers in toxic companies aren’t reading articles like these.

No Glass Houses Here

It’s not as if we’re all that much better. We wrote Is Your Workplace Toxic? Definitely Maybe. Plus we talked about toxic, yet effective employees. And we’ve ranted plenty about how too many business treat people like children rather than like adults..

Everybody who is sharing pieces about toxic workplaces is pretty much in the same boat: they know what’s wrong, they are telling individuals to beware, and perhaps once in a while they help someone make the decision to start looking for another job.

But, I doubt that a lot of managers are coming across pieces like 5 Signs of a Toxic Workplace from The Ladders or taking the New York Timestoxic workplace quiz and suddenly realizing they are blissfully unaware and leaping into action.

Nope. That’s not happening.

It’s Psychology, Dummy

Why does company leadership create and support a toxic workplace? It’s not because they are sociopaths (at least probably not.) It’s because being ignorant but thinking you have things figured out is a fundamental tenant of modern social science research. It’s even got a name: The Dunning-Kruger Effect.

There are a bunch of other cognitive biases you should learn about. These things ought to be as fundamental to working in the modern economy as “try to never use reply-all” and “Google it before you ask a colleague.” But we can’t get those passed along, so understanding a couple of scientific concepts may be a bridge too far.

Instead of More Articles, More Action

You do have options. The usual recommendations still apply: First: determine if you’re stuck in the asylum, and if so, quit. That’s always worth considering. The grass may well be greener, despite the expression.

A second path to consider is going rogue. You can print out scathing opinion pieces and slide them under the boss’ door. You can go on your favorite anonymous review site or make a throwaway email account. That probably won’t work, but it at least be thrilling.

You can also play pretend. If you worked in a great company where everyone was valued, what would you do instead? Would you speak up instead of saying silent? Would you have a better sense of work-life balance? Would you criticize bad ideas, or ignore meeting requests that didn’t apply to you? That’s a choice as well.

Finally, consider revolution. Okay, so there’s not going to be a Lexington and Concord at the satellite office of your mid-sized distribution and logistics company. But if you’re frustrated, other people probably are too. And it’s a lot harder for toxic sludge to be effective if people are united. Team up to ignore the meaningless paperwork together, or stand up against whatever inane requirement is being pushed down this week.

Or, read more articles. We’ll keep writing them. At least, until businesses treat their people like human beings.

See you next time.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


Troublemaker and productivity/workflow expert. Slightly more complex than 140 characters will permit.
@lorraineball First probably depends on the business. But second is likely training, especially with regard to sales. - 4 weeks ago
Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter

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